Libel: Who Is a Public Official?

"Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open," said the Supreme Court in 1964. In that famous decision (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan), the court ruled that a public official cannot collect libel damages even for false criticism of his official conduct unless he proves "actual malice." But who is a public official? The court did not say. As a result, lower courts have since extended the Times doctrine to reach "officials" ranging from a candidate for Congress to the law partner of a mayoral candidate.

The latest such case...

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